Kicking in the Shadows

By Cheryl Cutlip

I will never forget my first steps on the great stage of Radio City Music Hall. As a brand new Rockette, my mind was full of choreography that would soon be performed for a live audience. The costumes had been designed, the rehearsals were complete, and now all we needed to do was get out there and “put on a show.” I recall vividly the famous Parade of the Wooden Soldiers routine during that first Christmas performance and the two counts of eight when we directly faced the audience and marched straight towards them in perfect precision. I also remember the feeling that suddenly came over me. My inner dialogue went something like this: “Ok, I don’t want to mess up. This is a famous routine that hundreds of Rockettes have performed before me. There are six thousand people in the audience. Think, Cheryl, think-6-7-8.”

Day one at the Music Hall was terrifying and amazing all at the same time. Unknowingly, I would have many more years to ponder that faithful Radio City audience where I learned many life lessons both on and off stage. The memories in my heart will always be with me, and I will cherish the blessing of my long and fulfilling career as a Radio City Rockette.

The first few years at Radio City were some of the most exciting. I was quite young, and there were a few Rockettes on the line who would prove to be deep and lasting friends. Though we were all gathered in New York City, the Rockettes were from all over the country.

During the first week of rehearsal I met Leslie from Texas and Renee from Virginia. We soon became the three musketeers, three peas in a pod, and sometimes the three stooges. Not only did we have dance in common but we were also Christians. During our time at Radio City we would meet together for prayer and encourage one another during the show.

The three of us happened to migrate to Redeemer Presbyterian Church under the leadership of Dr. Tim Keller. Over time we decided to begin something more formal at our church in the area of dance. Redeemer Dance was born and soon we were not only dancing at Radio City but also serving the dance needs within our local church.

Meanwhile, Radio City was generous enough to allow us to begin a Christian fellowship once a week in between shows. The schedule for the Christmas Spectacular is quite demanding. Sometimes we would do as many as five shows in a single day. The idea of being able to make it to a regular church service during the height of the season was simply out of question. The weekends were our busiest times, so we began to meet together for fellowship right inside the Music Hall.

Soon we learned that there we other Christians in our show. As we grew, our meeting place underneath one of the Hall’s stairwells became cramped and we needed to find a larger space. The following year, we did find a larger stairwell, and once again our weekly meetings went on with vigor.

Once we invited our pastor to come and share about the relevance of The Nativity. Our show ends with a twenty-minute living nativity which includes some scriptural narrations and a few camels, donkeys, and sheep. It was so amazing to have Dr. Keller share with cast members about the actual story compared to the show’s rendition. He also shared the relevance of Christ today and why a relationship with Christ is valid and necessary. We invited anyone from the cast who wanted to know more about the history of the nativity—musicians, stage hands, other Rockettes, chorus dancers, hair and make-up artists, wardrobe, etc. I think we had about thirty cast members attending that day.

Over the years our fellowship was named The Rock. It seemed to fit perfectly since we were The Rockettes and Christ is the true Rock in our lives. With each Christmas season The Rock continued to meet. Soon we were given a very nice conference room with leather swivel chairs, which felt much better than the hard stairwells after a few hundred kicks. There were some seasons when we had an average of fifteen Rockettes meeting on a regular basis. We would take prayer requests, read the Bible, discuss difficult issues, and encourage each other through the love of Christ. Often those Rockettes who weren’t able to attend would send their prayer requests through the regulars.

There were occasional murmurings about The Rock and our weekly meetings by other cast members. I was once told in the dressing room that we were in a place of work and not of worship. A few days later that same Rockette spent an hour talking about God in the dressing room. To this day, I adore her and believe she has a wonderful relationship with God.

I also recall that after ten years of Rocketting and attending The Rock, a friend approached me on the first day back to the season. She pulled me aside and asked if she could meet with me after rehearsal. During our meeting she shared that she had been watching my life for the past ten years and felt that she was ready for a relationship with God. I was so honored to walk her through the process of surrendering her life to Jesus and trusting him with her new life in Christ. She is now growing strong in the Lord and attending a great church in the heart of New York City.

My early Rockette years were also my early years as a believer. I had accepted Christ on my first professional job only three years prior to becoming a Rockette. By the time I settled into life at Radio City I also had a hunger to learn more of the Bible.

Several of the Rockettes were simultaneously getting an education while performing on the line. We had future doctors and lawyers in our midst. I thought I’d jump on the band wagon since Radio City was willing to pay for our continued education. I wasn’t sure they’d be willing to send me to seminary, but I figured it was worth asking. I still hold on to that first check written out to Westminster Theological Seminary from Radio City Music Hall Productions. It always reminds me that God can do the most amazing things in the most unusual ways.

One of the main reasons I wanted to attend seminary was to further understand myself and my calling. I knew deep down that God had made me a dancer, but I found it difficult to find the intersection of my faith and my artistry. I was searching for a deeper understanding of what God had to say about art—its purpose, its proper placement in the world.

One of my ultimate questions was whether or not God would honor what I was doing with dance in the marketplace. Did I need to retreat to a more “holy” version of dance? If so, how would I explain the obvious connection I found with God through my calling as a dancer in the marketplace? My relationship with Christ seemed to be thriving in the midst of a chaotic world. People were meeting Christ around me and I was part of something peculiar within the Halls of entertainment.

My personal journey led me to begin dialoguing with other artists about their own faith experiences and how they managed life in the marketplace. It didn’t take long to realize the majority of dancers I spoke to about these issues had the same questions.

My passion for answers in this area led me to seek out others who were grappling with issues of faith and art. I soon began receiving invitations from other churches to teach and offer dance training workshops. One thing led to another and soon there was a need to more formally identify this movement.

Project Dance was born out of a desire to serve the needs of dancers who were asking the deeper questions about faith and art. What started out as a few notes from a seminary class is now an international movement of dancers worldwide who come together to support and encourage one another through performance, training, and networking.

Today Project Dance serves over a thousand dancers annually through our four program areas: Project Dance Events, Atmosphere Dance Company, Broadway Underground, and The Project Dance School of Urban Ministry. Our goal is to see every dancer nurtured to their fullest human potential for their own well-being and their contribution to the world.

Our open-air dance concerts began shortly after the events of 9/11 in the heart of Times Square. Dancers offered hope and healing to New York City in a ten-hour concert. In 2010 we offered events in seven major cities including Toronto, Manila, Hong Kong, Atlanta, Sydney, and Houston. In 2011 we will bring hope and healing through dance to Washington D.C., Brisbane, Penang, Orlando, and London along with celebrating our 10th anniversary in New York City.

The reward has been great. I remember the first year of Project Dance and the story of a young girl who dreamed of dancing on Broadway. Her chances of that were slim since she was suffering from a life-threatening disease.  Throughout the weekend she remained in bed until just moments before her performance. She made her way down to the stage and danced on the corner of 44th Street and Broadway. Making someone’s dream come true moved me beyond belief and I will always keep her in my heart.

One year during a Project Dance Event in the Big Apple, Radio City Music Hall was vacant. Nothing was booked on the Friday night of our event, so I decided to ask if they would open the doors for the attending dancers. I expected them to say no because of the sheer man power it takes to keep the lights on and doors open.

To my surprise, they were excited to help. Not only did we get the run of the place for an entire evening but the house manager provided sodas and snacks for everyone as well. There we sat in a six-thousand-seat house discussing the future of dance and our faith in God.

I used to dream that some day my world as a Rockette and my world as a Christian would somehow collide in divine synchronicity. Just this year I began to see the fusion as we were able to welcome artists like Desmond Richardson and Chet Walker into our events. Top artists in the marketplace are now calling on Project Dance to join forces. Our sponsors are some of the biggest names in dance, like Capezio and Bloch, along with some of the biggest names in ministry, like Oral Roberts University and Westminster Theological Seminary. I see a great merger in front of me, and it inspires me to continue on this journey.

There used to be a nagging question in my heart: “God, why am I a Rockette?” Is there one long kick line in heaven that I’m being prepared for here on earth? What am I doing here? Then, sure enough, one day during a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade rehearsal I heard that still small voice: “Cheryl, do you know why you are a Rockette?” Of course I asked the Lord if we could have this conversation after rehearsal so that I could learn the new steps. The answer was “No, I want to share all of this with you right now.”

“Okay, Lord, you’re the boss. What do you want to share with me?”

“I want to remind you of your childhood dreams. You dreamed of your name in lights on Broadway, dancing in movies, and becoming a star. I chose to make you a Rockette for your own protection. You see, as a Rockette you have been able to experience all of your childhood dreams. You’ve even danced for the president of the United States.  However, the name in lights has been The Rockettes. Cheryl, I want you to desire me more than yourself. The Rockettes have been your covering to experience all of your dreams and yet you have never received personal credit or glory for those dreams. That was my decision in your life to protect you from yourself. As you continue down your journey as an artist I would ask that you stay under the shadow of my wings. I want to be your covering. From now on, everything you do as an artist will be under me.”

Through the tears I’m realizing the great love and sovereignty of our God who would reveal his purpose amidst all this high-kicking business. I was amazed that he revealed this to me after ten years of dancing as a Rockette. Why not sooner, I thought? But it didn’t matter. I was changed.

For the remainder of my Rockette career I understood deeply that my job was a gift from God and that there were lessons to be learned while kicking on the great stage. I never again took for granted my job as a Rockette and desired to give more than one hundred percent each and every day, knowing that my position as a Rockette had been hand-picked for me.

Sometimes people ask if I miss dancing on the line. There are moments when I think about how exciting it was to sit at my dressing spot and prepare for a show at Radio City, to perform with celebrities like Liza Minnelli, or to appear on The Today Show or Good Morning America during the Christmas season.

I have so much to be thankful for over my fifteen-year career. I went from Rockette to dance captain to assistant choreographer of The Christmas Spectacular. During those fifteen years I met my husband, had two beautiful children, made lifelong friends and learned the ins and outs of show business under the direction of many wonderful people.

Today life is just as exciting, and every day is a new adventure. We still live in the heart of New York City’s theater district where I continue to perform and oversee Project Dance. I now enjoy giving back to the dance community and look forward to seeing more of what God will do in the marketplace of dance.

It seems that more artists today understand the validity of the marketplace. Thankfully, there is a voice of encouragement out there reminding artists to contribute to the world and be part of the cultural mix. The question is no longer whether or not God is honored in that arena. I have found that the actual dilemma is much deeper in each of our hearts. We must ask ourselves the question, “Do I want to be under his shadow?” This is a question that we can only answer for ourselves. It isn’t an issue of location but rather a position within our hearts.

We are not protected from the pitfalls of the human experience merely by the walls of the church. In fact, when pressed by a world full of chaos and unbelief we sometimes see ourselves more clearly. Our light shines a bit brighter when darkness pervades, and hopefully we have an answer for those who see something different in us.

In a rapidly changing world and a culture that shifts on a dime, I like to keep things simple. I do my best to seek God first in all things. Life seems to fall into place when I focus on knowing him more deeply. I have more peace and I seem to hold more loosely to the false idols of my heart, knowing they don’t have the power to fulfill my true human needs.

God is welcome and honored at Radio City, on Broadway, The New York City Ballet, The School of American Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and many other prominent halls of entertainment throughout the New York City area. Currently, there are Bible studies taking place within each of these companies. Isn’t it exciting to know that our most excellent dance artists are also honoring God at work and offering the world a most beautiful expression?

Artists today have a unique purpose to fulfill in the world. The responsibility is great and yet the reward is satisfying. Our slogan at Project Dance is “Perform with integrity to inspire.” I encourage artists of this generation to uphold integrity in their personal lives and in the art they oversee, to receive inspiration from God and his beautiful creation. In doing so we will see art and culture reflect the truest beauty of the human experience as it ponders the deeper things of God’s reality.

Cheryl Cutlip is the executive director of The Project Dance Foundation (http://www.projectdance.com/)

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